Finally, Some Good News For Women Directors in Hollywood

The proportion of women directing top movies at the box office markedly increased last year, according to one of the primary annual studies of the topic.

Among the 113 people who directed the top 100 highest-grossing movies of 2019, 12 were women (10.6%), according to a new study released Thursday by University of Southern California professor Stacy L. Smith and her Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which has released yearly reports on the issue for 13 years.

The numbers mark a significant increase from 2018, when only 4.5% of the directors of the top 100 movies were women, a drop from the previous year.

It’s the first time the percentage has increased so substantially since Smith’s team began studying the issue in 2007.

The group has previously found abysmal results. Its 2017 report concluded that there had been no measurable change for a decade, with the percentage of women behind the camera in top-grossing films hovering around 4% for much of the 2010s, despite increased advocacy around the issue.

But as Thursday’s report warns, the gains in 2019 are still nowhere near gender parity and the numbers are even lower for women of color, who directed four of the top 100 movies in 2019.

Across the 13 years Smith’s team has studied each year’s top 100 highest-earning films, only 4.8% of the directors have been women. Less than 1% were women of color. More than 82% were white men.

The report also highlights a pervasive gap in awards recognition for movies with women at the helm, despite the marked increase in acclaimed films directed by women.

We see that women’s achievements behind the camera are still not seen or celebrated by their peers or the press. Until we shatter the stereotype of who can be lauded as a director, we will not see change in this area.”
Stacy L. Smith, University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative

Between the Golden Globes, the Directors Guild of America Awards, the Critics’ Choice Awards and the Oscars, only 5.1% of the directing nominees over the last 13 years have been women. Only one of the nominated directors was a woman of color: Ava DuVernay, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for 2014′s “Selma” and was famously excluded from the Oscar nominees that year.

This dearth of recognition was most recently demonstrated by the all-male field of directing nominees at this Sunday’s Golden Globe awards, which left out top contenders like Greta Gerwig for “Little Women” and Lulu Wang for “The Farewell.”

Some Oscar prognosticators are predicting a similar result when this year’s nominees are announced on Jan. 13.

Only five women in history have been nominated for the Best Director Oscar, including two in the last decade: Kathryn Bigelow, who is still the only woman to have won the award, for “The Hurt Locker” (2009); and Gerwig for her 2017 film “Lady Bird.”

“We see that women’s achievements behind the camera are still not seen or celebrated by their peers or the press,” Smith said. “Until we shatter the stereotype of who can be lauded as a director, we will not see change in this area.”

The report also urges major film festivals, studios and production companies to do more to champion the work of women. While some have improved hiring practices — like Netflix, where 20% of directors for the streaming platform’s fictional films released in the U.S. in 2019 were women — others continue to under-employ female directors. For example, from 2015 to 2019, Paramount Pictures made zero films directed by women.

Assessing critical acclaim using data from the movie review aggregator Metacritic, the researchers found that movies directed by women do just as well as movies directed by men, yet women get far fewer opportunities. Films directed by women of color received the highest median and average scores on Metacritic of any group, according to the study, yet they remain woefully under-produced.

“These findings suggest that when companies seek to hire ‘the best person for the job,’ they are not relying on objective criteria, but on a subjective view of storytellers,” Smith said.

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